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8-08-2015, 00:01

The komnenian family system: bonds and flaws

The most distinctive, as well as the most fatal, characteristic of the Komnenian empire was the identification of the state with the imperial family; this was the essence of what used to be labelled the feudalism of the Komnenian dynasty. In some ways, Manuel’s regime looks less feudal than that of Alexios or John, despite his liking for the culture and the company of western knighthood. As he matured, according to Choniates, ‘he ruled more autocratically, treating his subjects not as free men but as if they were servants who belonged to him by inheritance’.35 His reliance on eunuchs recalls the pre-Komnenian period, as do his attempts to cut back on grants of privilege and immunity. Yet the cut-back was mainly at the expense of the church and the Italian maritime republics. All other indications are that he was at least as indulgent to his extended family as his father and grandfather had been, and that he was scrupulous in maintaining a strict hierarchy by blood-relationship. He created one new title, that of despot¯es, for B´ela-Alexios ofHungary, when designating him as his future son-in-law and heir to the throne; the title lapsed at the birth of Alexios II, but it was revived by later emperors, and it remained the most senior of the three titles (the others were sebastokrat¯or and caesar) which were reserved for the emperor’s immediate family, and carried semi-imperial status, allowing their bearers to wear quasi-imperial insignia and to sit with the emperor on ceremonial occasions. Manuel may also have introduced certain changes to the titulature of the wider circle of imperial relatives. In the earlier years of the dynasty, all relatives by blood or marriage below the rank of caesar had been designated by variants of the title sebastos (see above, p. 612). In the ceremonial lists of Manuel’s reign, however, the imperial nephews and cousins, who stand next to the enthroned imperial family, have no titles beyond their kinship designation, with the sole exception of the senior imperial nephew, who is pr¯otosebastos (‘first sebastos’) and pr¯otovestiarios, i.e. head of the imperial household. The ranks of the sebastoi begin at the next level down and, among them, those who are designated as the emperor’s gambroi, that is the husbands of his female nieces and cousins, rank senior to those whose relationship is too distant to be named. Not only are ranks carefully graded by degree of kinship to the emperor, and within each degree according to the seniority of the kinsman through whom the kinship is traced, but kinship designations begin to take the place of titles.36 In addition to this continual articulation of the imperial family system, Manuel’s reign witnessed its further extension downwards from the military to the bureaucracy, and outwards into the sphere of foreign relations. As the Komnenian aristocracy proliferated, more of its members came to hold civilian office, while others married into the more illustrious civilian families, one of which, the Kamateroi, was already connected with the Doukai and well on the way to establishing its later ascendancy in the church and the bureaucracy. The marriage diplomacy of Alexios I and John II had created blood lines leading from the Komnenoi to ruling dynasties in the lands of the Rus, the Caucasus, Hungary and Germany. Manuel more than doubled the network with marriage alliances that related the imperial family in Constantinople to royal and princely families in Austria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Tuscany, Piedmont, northern France and Languedoc. Marriage alliances were also discussed with Henry II of England (1154–89) and William II of Sicily. This was perhaps the closest Byzantium came to being at the centre of an international ‘family of kings’; even the sultan of Rumwas included by virtue of his ritual adoption as the emperor’s son. That Manuel saw a close connection between his internal and external families is evident in the way he interfered with the church’s marriage legislation on the forbidden degrees of kinship and punished men from undistinguished bureaucratic families who threatened to devalue the status of Komnenian brides by attempting to marry into noble families. In 1180, then, the political existence of theByzantine empire was governed by kinship and lineage to an unprecedented degree. The future of the system consisted as never before in the cohesion of the extended imperial family. For a century that cohesion had been managed by the emperor as head of the family, but now that the emperor was an eleven-year-old, it depended on a consensus of loyalty to the young Alexios II among the Komnenian nobility. Manuel did what he could to create a framework of collective patriotic and familial responsibility: he set up a regency council, perhaps based on his inner circle of advisers, comprising his widow, the patriarch and a number of relatives. The latter were presumably selected on the basis of seniority, althoughNiketas Choniates indicates that they participated on a basis of equality.37 At the same time, Manuel obtained guarantees from the sultan, the prince of Antioch, the king of Jerusalem and possibly other members of the external ‘family of kings’ that they would defend Alexios’ inheritance. With hindsight it seems clear, and contemporaries seem to have sensed, that these measures were doomed to failure. The Komnenian family had been prone to factionalism from the time of Alexios I, and its solidarity inevitablyweakened as each generation multiplied the number of household units (oikoi) with which the imperial oikos at the heart of the kin-group (genos) had to share the finite resources of an empire which they all still regarded as the Komnenian family patrimony. The accessions of John II and Manuel I had not gone unchallenged, and although Manuel saw off his original challengers, the sebastokratores Isaac, his brother and uncle, the latter’s place was taken by his son Andronikos, while the former’s supporters seem to have gravitated towards Alexios Axouch, the husband of Manuel’s niece by the emperor’s late brother Alexios. Axouch’s ‘conspiracy’ in 1167 was quickly disposed of, but Andronikos was a constant worry to Manuel from 1154, almost as troublesome during his long spells in prison, from which he escaped twice, in 1159 and 1164, and in exile among the empire’s eastern neighbours (1167–80), as he was during his brief period of liberty. After his return and rehabilitation in Manuel’s final year, he was understandably sent – like his father before him – into comfortable internal exile on the Black Sea coast. But this exclusion from Constantinople played into Andronikos’ hands, by giving him a provincial power base where he could recruit supporters, and by casting him as an impartial outsider to the selfish intrigues which divided the regency council of Alexios II, to the gross neglect of the boy’s upbringing and the public interest. According to Niketas Choniates, there were those who lusted after the widowed empress and sought to seduce her, those who lusted after money and appropriated public funds to meet their growing expenses and those who lusted after imperial power.38 Elsewhere he describes them in somewhat different terms: ‘Some of his noble guardians winged their way repeatedly like bees to the provinces and stored up money like honey, others like goats hankered after the tender shoots of empire which they continually longed to crop, while others grew fat like pigs on filthy lucre’.39 The emphasis on money-making is interesting, particularly the implied distinction between the misappropriation of tax revenue from the provinces, and the sordid enrichment from the profits of trade, and possibly of prostitution, in Constantinople. It shows that the search for funds to maintain an aristocratic lifestyle was a constant motivating factor in political loyalty. His enforced isolation thus put Andronikos in an ideal position, which he exploited masterfully, to pose as champion of Alexios II’s best interests, which the boy’s guardians were patently neglecting, and to win the sympathies of the many noble figures in Constantinople: these includedManuel’s daughter Maria, who resented the dominance which one of the regency council,Manuel’s nephewthe pr¯otosebastos Alexios, acquired over the young emperor by forming an amorous liaison with the dowager empress. After the tension between Maria and the pr¯otosebastos broke out in armed conflict, Andronikos’ intervention became inevitable. If Andronikos, once in power, had kept his election promises and formed a genuinely inclusive regency government for Alexios II, he might have held the Komnenian nobility together. His programme of administrative reform, admirable in itself, could have won him support even among his peers if he had treated them fairly and generously. But by instituting a reign of terror against all potential rivals for the regency, including the emperor’s sister and mother, he provoked a serious revolt in Asia Minor; then, by going on to eliminate Alexios II and settle the succession on his own son John, he removed the only focus of consensus among the Komnenian kin-group, and committed himself to dependence on a faction bound to him by self-interest. The terror continued, and those who could escaped by fleeing abroad, to the courts of rulers who had had ties or treaties withManuel and Alexios II. Thus the sultan, the prince and patriarch of Antioch, the king of Jerusalem, the pope, FrederickBarbarossa, the marquis ofMontferrat, the king ofHungary and, above all, the king of Sicilywere approached by refugees imploring their intervention. It was at the insistence of Manuel’s great-nephew, the pinkern¯es Alexios Komnenos, that William II of Sicily sent the invasion force which took Dyrrachium and Thessaloniki in 1185. The stated aim of the expedition was to replace Andronikos with a young man claiming to be Alexios II: pseudo-Alexioi were the inconvenient but inevitable consequence – for later emperors, too – of the fact that Andronikos had sunk Alexios’ body in the Bosporus. The Sicilian invasion thus not only recalled the past invasions of Robert Guiscard, Bohemond and Roger II; it also set a precedent for the diversion of the Fourth Crusade, both by the damage and humiliation it caused, and in the way it involved the external ‘family of kings’ in the politics of the Komnenian family. Andronikos would probably have succeeded eventually in repelling the Sicilian invasion, as he succeeded in quelling every organised conspiracy against him, but the very diligence of his agents in hunting down potential conspirators led, quite unpredictably, to the spontaneous uprising which toppled him.Whenhis chief agentwent to arrest a suspect who had given no cause for suspicion, the suspect slew the agent in desperation, and then did the only thing he could do in order to avoid immediate execution: he rushed for asylum to the church of St Sophia. A crowd gathered, Andronikos – evidently feeling secure – was out of town and, St Sophia being also the imperial coronation church, one thing led to another. So Isaac II Angelos became emperor because he was in the right place at the right time, and this had a decisive effect on the course of his reign. His propagandists claimed, and he firmly believed, that his accession was providential, that he was the Angel of the Lord sent by heaven to end the tyranny, so that his whole reign was ordained, blessed and protected byGod.He considered his power irreproachable and untouchable, and he exercised it with a mixture of grandiosity and complacency quite inappropriate to his situation. Other important people did not share Isaac II’s belief. His miraculous elevation was not enough to convince Isaac Komnenos inCyprus, Peter and Asen in Bulgaria, Theodore Mangaphas in Philadelphia or Basil Chotzas at Tarsia, near Nikomedeia, that they owed loyalty to Constantinople, or to prevent two young men from raising rebellions by pretending to be Alexios II. Among his own close family, it did not make up for his lack of seniority, or his military incompetence; he was challenged by his uncle John and his nephew Constantine Angelos. The Komnenian nobility as a whole were not impressed, because many of them had equally good, if not better, dynastic claims in terms of the hierarchy of kinship which had operated under Manuel: Isaac was descended from Alexios I’s youngest daughter, but others could trace their descent through the male line, and some could count John II among their ancestors. For several of them, Isaac’s success was only an incentive to follow it and turn up at St Sophia in the hope of being acclaimed. The first to try this was Alexios Branas, the general who had halted the Sicilian invasion. Having failed in this first attempt, he waited until he was put in command of the army sent to quell the Vlach revolt. What made his rebellion so dangerous was the fact that he combined good Komnenian lineage with military expertise and strong family connections among the military aristocracy of Adrianople. Isaac was saved only by the loyalty of the people of Constantinople and a bold sortie by Conrad of Montferrat. During ten years in power, Isaac II faced at least seventeen revolts, a number exceeded in the eleventh and twelfth centuries only by the twentyone plots that are recorded for the thirty-nine-year reign of Alexios I. Isaac undoubtedly saw something providential in the fact of his survival, but repeated opposition took its toll on the effectiveness of his rule, making it virtually impossible for him to delegate important military commands to highly competent noble commanders. This was probably decisive for the outcome of the rebellion of Peter and Asen. Lack of support among the Komnenian nobility may have prompted what was seen to be Isaac’s excessive favouritism to his grand logothete, his non-Komnenian maternal uncle Theodore Kastamonites, and to the latter’s successor, Constantine Mesopotamites. It certainly drove the members of five leading Komnenian families, the Palaiologos, Branas, Kantakouzenos, Raoul and Petraliphas, to mount the coup in 1195 which replaced Isaac with his elder brother Alexios III Angelos. Sibling rivalry had, as we have seen, threatened to destroy the Komnenian system in the past, but it had been kept under control, and its eruption into successful usurpation sealed the fate of the system in its twelfth-century phase. Niketas Choniates saw the overthrow of brother by brother as the supreme manifestation of the moral depravity for which the fall of Constantinople was just retribution.40 From the deposition of Isaac II proceeded the escape of his son Alexios to the west just when the Fourth Crusade needed an excuse for a detour via Constantinople. In their comeback, the internal and external dimensions of the system fatally converged. Choniates, perhaps looking back to Andronikos and even to his father, saw a pattern: If anything was the supreme cause that the Roman power collapsed to its knees and suffered the seizure of lands and cities, and, finally, itself underwent annihilation, this was the members of the Komnenoi who revolted and usurped power. For, dwelling among the nations which were unfriendly to the Romans, they were the bane of their country, even though when they stayed at home they were ineffectual, useless and incompetent in anything they tried to undertake.41 This retribution apart, however, Alexios III faced relatively little opposition from the Komnenoi. In 1200–1 there were provincial revolts led by his cousinsMichael Angelos andManuel Kamytzes, and a one-day occupation of the Great Palace in Constantinople by a son of Alexios Axouch, John Komnenos the Fat. But otherwise, Alexios enjoyed fairly good support in the bureaucracy and the church through his connection by marriage with the Kamateros family, and the consortium of Komnenian families which brought him to power appear to have been satisfied with his laissez-faire regime, and with his adoption of the name Komnenos in preference to Angelos. All five families flourished after 1204; four were to be prominent after 1261 in the restored empire of the Palaiologoi, and the Palaiologoi gained a head start in their future ascendancy from the marriage which Alexios III arranged between his daughter Irene and Alexios Palaiologos. The marriage of another daughter, Anna, to Theodore I Laskaris (1205– 21) laid the dynastic basis for the empire of Nicaea, the most successful of the three main Greek successor states after 1204. Cousins of Isaac II and Alexios III established the western state which enjoyed brief glory as the empire of Thessaloniki and then survived in north-western Greece as the despotate of Epiros. The empire of Trebizond, which lasted until 1461, was ruled by a dynasty calling themselves the Grand Komnenoi, who were descended from Andronikos I. Under the successors of Manuel I the Komnenian system, centred on Constantinople, was programmed for self-destruction. Relocated to the provinces after 1204 through the leading families of the last twelfth-century regimes, it ensured the survival of the Byzantine empire for another two and a half centuries, while losing none of its divisive potential.